BOOK REVIEWS

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”

Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it.
Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.

“There were always excuses for why girls died.”

It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue.
Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour.
Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.

“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”

If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.

Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a compelling fiction debut from a promising author. As the title suggests the stories in this collection are centred on Black women who have complex relationships to their church and to God. In a concise and stirring prose Deesha Philyaw explores the lives, desires, and fears of her characters, focusing on the friction between their beliefs—often instilled by their parents or communities—and their sense of self. Philyaw captures Black girlhood and womanhood, showing the importance of female solidarity and human connection. While not all of the stories have a contemporary setting, the topics Philyaw touches on are still relevant: race, faith, sexuality, sex, love, family, belonging. Fraught mother-daughter relationships appear in more than one story, and it is a sign of Philyaw’s writing skills that she is able to portray each woman (be it the daughter or the mother) with nuance. Philyaw, similarly to Danielle Evans, who simply excels at writing short stories, balances moments of poignancy with humour (I simply loved the grandmother in ‘Dear Sister’).
The dialogues, settings, and ideas depicted in these pages are vividly rendered. My favourite where ‘Dear Sister’, ‘Peach Cobbler’, ‘Snowfall’ (this one was a heartbreaker), and ‘How To Make Love To a Physicist’ (the style in this one is really fun). The other stories, although enjoyable and well-written, just didn’t affect me as much. I appreciated them but, unlike my favourite ones, they didn’t give me the so called ‘feels’.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of authors such as Danielle Evans and Zalika Reid-Benta and I am looking forward to Philyaw’s next book.

my rating: ★★★ ½

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Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

Action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, action, cut. These aren’t commands, not for me. They’re more like everyday punctuation. A capital letter. A period. An indication that I should pay attention to what’s going on in the middle.”

Pretty as a Picture tells a slow-burn type of suspenseful story, one that I would definitely recommend to movie aficionados as this novel shines a light on the realities of the film industry: from the demanding, if not downright tyrannical, directors and agents to the power dynamics and hierarchies that are at play in a film crew. This behind-the-scenes setting is perhaps the most interesting and dazzling aspect of this book.

Although there are certain elements within the narrative that would not be out of place in a thriller, Pretty as a Picture is above all a character-driver story. Marissa, our protagonist and narrator, makes this novel. While she may initially strike readers as yet another introverted ‘not like other people’ character—who is later on reassured by others about her looks and personality—Marissa not only experience things differently but others are aware of this and often make the point of commenting on it. Her poor social skills, her ‘ticks’, her struggle to read or understand other people’s tone of voice or body language, her dislike of physical contact….these all contribute to making small everyday things—such any type of social interaction—much harder for her.
Films help her navigate the world. When she doesn’t know what to do or say she turns to the films she’s watched. Sometimes she simply draws strength from the characters of her favourite movies, while on other occasions someone, something, or someplace might remind her of a certain film.

When her best friend, and former creative partner, moves out of their apartment and with her douche-y boyfriend, Marissa finds herself in need of an editing gig. Her agent pushes into accepting an offer for a film based on a true murder case. Marissa is told that the previous editor suddenly left so the director, Tony Rees, is desperate for someone to replace him. Marissa is taken to a remote island where she unearths more than one mystery: from the dismissal of various members of staff to the growing tension between the people working on the film…something is afoot. Marissa, alongside some new acquaintances, plays detective in order to find just what is going on this set.

The murder aspect of the story kicks starts around the half-way mark. Before then we are introduced to the story’s many characters and we get a chance to truly get to know Marissa. The slow yet atmospheric start gives way to an increasingly urgent storyline. There are some twists that are somewhat predictable but I still enjoyed seeing the way in which things unfolded.
Marissa is a distinctive narrator. Her interactions with others could be either funny, awkward, or tense, and I appreciated the way in which Elizabeth Little depicted her. We read about her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and her quirks.
The chemistry between Marissa and Isaiah adds a nice touch to the story.

Interspersed throughout Marissa’s narrative are snippets from her a true-crime podcast, ‘Dead Ringer’, run by two teenage girls who, like Marissa, are sleuths of sorts. These sections give us glimpses of what is to come, without ever revealing too much.
Filled with cinematic references Pretty as a Picture offers a sharp commentary about the film industry, the dead-girl trope, the way in which true-crime glamorises death, as well as insight into someone who is labelled as ‘different’ by their society.
Overall, Pretty as a Picture was a thoroughly entertaining novel and I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoyed The Lost Night, books by Riley Sager, or Still Lives.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Rebellious Tide by Eddy Boudel Tan

This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel bad for not liking a book. The more I read The Rebellious Tide, the less I liked it. Yet, I really tried to pretend otherwise. Having loved Eddy Boudel Tan’s debut novel (it moved me to tears, something that does not happen often to grinches like moi) I had high expectations for his sophomore novel and I can’t help but be disappointment by it. If you are thinking of reading this novel I recommend you check out some positive reviews out as this review won’t be particularly ‘rosy’.

The Rebellious Tide follows Sebastien, a young man who is grieving the death of his mother. He resents his hometown as he believes that the townspeople have always treated him and his mother like outsiders (his mother was originally from Singapore). We learn of his on-off again relationship with Sophie and of his hatred towards his father, a Greek man who allegedly abandoned his mother when she was pregnant with Sebastien. So, naturally, Sebastien decides to take revenge on his father. Lucky for him, he manages to get himself hired as a photographer on a luxury cruise ship monstrosity (as a former Venetian I abhor cruises) which happens to captained by his father. He makes fast friends with two other members of staff and decides to make inquiries about his father, wanting to learn what kind of person he is. Soon Sebastien realises how rigid the hierarchy among staff members is, and his resentment towards his father makes him start a ‘rebellion’.
There were elements of the story that I liked, such as the cruise as microcosm of society. The ‘confined’ setting augmented the already brewing tension between the ship’s crew and the staff (who are deemed ‘inferior’ or ‘expandable’). But…I just could not believe in any of it. I couldn’t suspend my sense of disbelief, and I never bought into any of it. The characters were painfully one-dimensional, the female ones especially, and yet the storyline tried for this serious tone which…I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me. As I said, I wanted to like this so bad but the more I read the less I liked what I was reading. The story is very on the nose. The ‘Greek myth’ connection was jarring and out-of-place. While I could have bought the whole ‘lower decks=Hades’, ‘passageway in the lower decks=Styx’, okay…we get it, lots of Greeks work on this ship. But the whole thing between Sebastien and his supposed ‘love interest’ where they call each other Achilles and Patroclus? Come on! The two men barely know each other, their relationship struck me (and yes, this is once again my personal opinion) as just sexual. And there is nothing wrong with that! But why present it as a tragic love story? Bah!
The characters did not sound like real people, the dialogues were clunky, and the writing…I don’t know, I guess I preferred the author’s prose in After Elliot because it was in the 1st person (making the whole thing much more ‘intimate’) whereas here we have a perspective that is all over the place and yet it doesn’t really delve beyond a character’s surface level.
And the whole storyline is so damn cheesy and gave me some strong soap opera vibes. Convenient coincidences and clichés abound! And don’t get me started on Sebastien’s father (and that done to death line, “you remind me of myself when I was your age”).

As I said (or wrote) I do hate myself a little bit for not liking this novel. While I am of the opinion that this novel is in desperate need of an overhaul, I hope that it will find its audience and that readers will connect to Sebastien in a way that I was not able to.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½ stars

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The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

For a book published in the 90s The Kitchen God’s Wife comes across as strangely outdated. And I guess in spite of Tan’s writing—which is far from mediocre or incompetent—I could not look past the fact that her story was the antithesis of female solidarity.

At first I was taken by Tan’s storytelling. The first 40 pages or so, those that take place in the ‘present’, were enjoyable. We learn that Pearl, a woman in her thirties, has always had a difficult relationship with Winnie, her mother. Some of this is due to generational and cultural differences but, as we soon learn, both mother and daughter have kept secrets from each other. When Winnie’s sister-in-law Helen/Hulan announces that she can no longer keep silent about their past, Winnie is forced to recount her many trials and hardships to her daughter. This is where the novel lost me. I find this kind of cheesy melodrama meets misery porn to be exceedingly frustrating. Winnie is basically Cinderella or the classic Mary Sue: 99% of people around her use her and abuse her. Every female character, with the exception of Grand Auntie Du, is cruel, vain, stupid, ugly, and or ungrateful. Winnie, on the other hand, is an angel. She is not like other girls. She endures and she suffers because she has aspirations to martyrdom.
Given that she is recounting past experiences directly—ie we get a 1st pov—you would think that at one point or another Winnie could express uncertainty over the accuracy of her memories or wonder if others recall things differently. But no! She keeps insisting that ‘this is what happened’ and that Helen is a liar who remembers things wrong. And, speaking of Helen, rather than painting a complex and fraught friendship, Tan presents us with the goody two shoes Winnie and the ugly, stupid, and venal Helen who is not only a horrible friend to Winnie but a lousy human being.
Anyway, Winnie recounts her tragic past: her mother abandons her, she is shunned by her wealthy father and raised by cartoonishly wicked relatives. In relating these experiences Winnie alway makes a point of emphasising her inherent goodness and beauty, often by making little digs about women’s failings. Winnie ends up marrying a horrible man who possess only vices. Her reminded me of the ‘bad’ men from The Giver of Stars and novels by Kristin Hannah. Personally, I prefer more nuanced characters. Tan also often conflates a characters’ physical appearance with their personality—so if one has an ugly character they will be indeed ‘ugly’ on the outside—which feels a tad…old-fashioned? Maybe it would be more suited to a novel dated from the 19th century than the 1990s.
The only sections that were somewhat interesting and whinging-free were the ones that stuck to facts. For example, when Tan writes details statics and about the Sino-Japanese War (as opposed to Winnie’s own experiences in it). When she writes of Nanking I felt much more horrified and moved than I was by anything related to Winnie.
Sadly, Winnie’s narrative is more intent on dissing on Helen than anything else. Here are some the lovely things she says/thinks about Helen: “Her mouth dropped open to let this thought come in and nourish her brain. I was thinking, Good, even though she is uneducated, she is quick to learn something new.” / “She was plump, but not in that classical way of a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. ” / her hair was “lumpy” / she had no sense of fashion, none at all.” / “a simple country girl”.
And Winnie goes on to tell Pearl that: “I am not being critical in remembering her features just because I am angry with her now”. Sure hon, go on and keep lying to yourself. Winnie never takes any responsibility. Everything is and or always was all Helen’s fault. Helen is ugly inside and out, “she broke harmony between us. I tell you, that day Hulan showed me her true character. She was not the soft melon head she made everyone believe she was. That girl could throw out sharp words, slicing fast as any knife”. And of course, “She’s the complaining one, not I”. I’m not so sure about that one Winnie…the story ended up being less about domestic abuse, war, and survival, then a woman going on and on about how her ‘supposed’ friend is a trash human being.
I swear, every few pages, Winnie would say something such as: “Who is the better cook? You see! I am not boasting. It’s true. ” / “You know what I think? When Jiaguo got his promotion, Hulan gave herself a promotion too! In her mind, she was more important than I was. ” / “She was always unhappy until I was the same level of unhappy as she was.” / “You would think Hulan would remember those hard little cakes, and then put a few coins, or maybe some food, into the beggar girl’s bowl, which is what I did. I’m not saying I did this all the time. But Hulan did not do this even once. Instead she put more food into her own mouth. She added fat onto her body the same way a person saves gold or puts money into a bank account, something she could use if worse came to worst.” / “So you see, I think it was some little river crabs Hulan wanted to eat in Changsha. That’s what made us sick. It stayed in our bodies and broke out one day.” / “She will probably tell you it was instant true love. Maybe for him. But I think she was being practical”….and I cannot stand this lousy portrayal of female ‘friendship’. Women, with the exception of Winnie, are catty and fake. Men, with the exception of Winnie’s Chinese-American second husband—are stupid, cowardly, or abusive sadists.
Other girls Winnie encounters also receive a similar treatment to Helen’s one. Winnie sometimes pretends to be nice (claiming that she didn’t hate a woman before stressing how selfish or unkind that woman was) but, in actuality, she is anything but. She describes a girl she dismisses as “stuck-up” as having “red as a demon’s” eyes. Her first husband’s new wife is not only “bossy” in both attitude and appearance but “stupid” (“You see how stupid his new wife was?”). Winnie also makes some weird comments about Burmese and Cantonese people, seems to relish the idea that Peanut, yet another cruel/vain girl, “who used to pride herself on the paleness of her skin. And now she was almost as dark as a Cantonese!”.
And yes, sure, Winnie suffers. Her husband is a monster with no redeeming qualities and with the exception of Grand Auntie Du and her American-born husband…well, everyone else is bad news.
I dislike this kind of ‘girl-on-girl hate’ and the whole Winnie=Cinderella thing was hella annoying.
Thankfully, I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand shop (then again, I will never get back the hours I spent reading this). While I wouldn’t recommend this novel to anyone in particular I’m aware that Tan is an extremely popular writer so….maybe it’s just me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

“Hold it gently, this hungry beast that is your heart.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread explores the complex relationship two sisters who were once close but have become estranged as adults. Their mother, Kambirinachi, believes that she is an Ogbanje, a malevolent spirit who haunts mothers by ‘coming’ and ‘going’ (usually the child dies in childhood). After being born and dying a few times Kambirinachi decides to remain in the ‘earthly’ realm and goes on to become a wife and mother to twin girls, Kehinde and Taiye. After a horrific event drives the twins apart they embark on separate journeys. Years later, Taiye has moved back Lagos and now lives with Kambirinachi. When Kehinde and her husband come to visit them, the twins are forced to confront the reasons why they grew apart.

“Our relationship has always struggled against our twinness.”

Through alternating chapters Francesca Ekwuyasi recounts Kambirinachi, Kehinde, and Taiye’s lives, from their childhoods until the present. The snapshots into Kehinde and Taiye’s youth and early adulthood are vividly rendered as they capture the places and people around them. Regardless of where the story was set—England, France, Canada, Nigeria—the setting was more than just a backdrop. Ekwuyasi conveys the Kehinde and Taiye’s loneliness as well as the cultural clash they experience once they move to other countries. The relationships and conversations they have with their friends, colleagues, peers, and lovers always rung true to life. Throughout the course of the novel Ekwuyasi touches on numerous interesting and topical topics, on art, intersectionality, sexuality, feminism, racism, and identity. The twins have been shaped by trauma they experienced as children, trauma they both try to overcome in not always successful ways. They are also grieving for one another. Their severed bond has clearly left a mark on them, so that even when they begin into their new lives loneliness weighs them down.
I just loved how realistic this story was. Ekwuyasi’s characters are authentic and fleshed out, their motivations and personalities are nuanced, the relationship between the twins is rendered with poignancy and empathy. By recounting the time they spent apart Ekwuyasi provides each sister with solid pasts, that is, real histories. With lucidity and insight Ekwuyasi writes of platonic and romantic love—queer love especially—of motherhood, of different forms of faith, of growing up, of trying to acclimatise to a new culture, of reconciliation, and of guilt.
As the title itself suggests, food is key in this novel. There are many scenes that feature characters cooking and eating. At times a certain dish or ingredient leads to a certain memory. These semingly quotidian scenes were really enjoyable to read and often they revealed more of a character or a certain relationship. Plus, Ekwuyasi serves us with some mouth-watering descriptions (my advice: do not read this novel on an empty stomach!).

Kambirinachi’s chapters perhaps didn’t always feel very cohesive. Whereas the twins’ chapters are grounded in realism, Kambirinachi’s ones foray into the magical realism. While we do learn in her chapters why Kambirinachi wasn’t a very present mother I think that this came across already in the twins’ chapters. Her perspective didn’t add a lot to the overall narrative, and perhaps, I would have loved this novel even more if it had remained focused on the twins and not Kambirinachi. Nevertheless, I did appreciate Ekwuyasi prose in her chapters. It had a rhythmic quality that resulted in some great storytelling.

“Something you must know is that Kambirinachi and Death were no strangers—no, but certainly not friends, either.”

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a touching debut by a clearly talented writer. If you enjoy authors such as Maame Blue and Zaina Arafat, you should definitely pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This novel proved to be the perfect ‘escape’ read. While I may not have been enamoured by every single book I’ve read by Libba Bray (the finales to her series left me a wee bit unsatisfied) I do consider her to be an amazing writer and a favourite of mine. Usually, however, her books are in the realms of the ‘historical’, so I wasn’t sure what to except from Beauty Queens, I just knew that after watching a certain series I fancied a Lord of the Flies kind of tale (with a female ensemble). And wow…Bray sure delivered. Beauty Queens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. This is the kind of satirical teen comedy that will definitely appeal to fans of classics such as Heathers, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Mean Girls. The story, writing, and characters are all over the top in the best possible of ways. This is the funniest book I’ve read in 2020.

Beauty Queens begins with ‘the Corporation’ addressing us readers, “This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading”. We are also told to keep vigilant as the story we are about to read may have some ‘subversive’ content. Throughout the novel there are footnotes by ‘the Corporation’, sometimes advertising ridiculous products and sometimes professing distaste or disapproval over a certain scene.
The novel mainly follows nine beauty queens contestants who after surviving a plane crash that killed the majority of the other contestants (one for each state) find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Rather than focusing on two or three contestants, Bray gives each of these nine beauty queens a backstory (I think only three contestants do not receive this treatment). We start with Adina, Miss New Hampshire, an aspiring journalist who joined the contest only to expose how misogynistic it is. At first Adina is snarky and not a great team player. Although she calls herself a feminist she has very ‘fixed’ notion of feminism, and her relationship with the other contestants will slowly challenge her previous views (on the contest itself, on liking thinks deemed ‘girly’,etc.). She immediately takes against Taylor, Miss Texas, the ‘leader’ of the surviving beauty queens. Taylor insists that they should keep practicing their routines for the contest as she believes that help is on the way. Taylor is badass, and I definitely enjoyed her character arc (which definitely took her down an unexpected path). We then have many other entertaining and compelling beauty queens: Mary Lou, who becomes fast friends with Adina in spite of their seemingly opposing views when it comes to sex; Nicole, the only black contestant, who wants to be a doctor but has been time and again been pressured into contests by her mother; participating as the only black contestant faces racism from the contest itself and the her peers; Shanti, an Indian American girl from California, who initially sees Nicole as ‘competition’ but as time goes by finds that she is only who understands how challenging it can be to navigate predominately white spaces; Petra, a level-headed girl who faces a different kind of prejudice; Jennifer, a queer girl who loves comics and has often been deemed a ‘troubled kid’; Sosie, who is deaf and always feels that she has to be happy in order to make others feel more ‘comfortable’; and, last but not least, Tiara, who at first seems like a comedic character, the ditzy or dumb blonde, but who soon proves that she is a very empathetic girl.
The girls don’t always get on with one another. In spite of their different backgrounds, interests, and temperaments, they have all been made to feel inadequate or ‘too much’.
As if surviving a deserted island wasn’t difficult enough a certain corporation is running some secret operation not far from the girls’ camp. Throw in some pirates/reality show contestants and there you have it.
Bray satirises everything under the sun: reality shows, beauty contests, pop culture, beauty products, corporations. While some of her story’s elements may be a bit ‘problematic’ in 2020, her satire never came across as mean spirited. In the end this is a story about acceptance and female solidarity. Bray shows all the ways in which society pressures and controls teenage girls, allowing for diverse perspectives and voices. Most of all, this novel is hilarious. Bray handles her over the top storyline and characters perfectly.
What more can I say (or write)? I loved it. This is the kind of uplifting read I would happily re-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“That was the thing about people on the outside. They thought it cheered him up to see their faces, but it just reminded him too much of freedom when everybody knew it was better to adjust to the kind of freedom available on the inside.”

Heartbreaking yet luminous A Kind of Freedom is a truly impressive debut. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s prose struck me as assured and lucid. Sexton entwines three narratives, each following a different generation of the same family. In 1944 we follow Evelyn who lives in New Orleans with her family. Her pale skin and her father’s profession give her certain privilege in the city’s black community so when she falls in love with Renard, a boy who aspires to be a doctor but is looked down upon for being working class, Evelyn is forced to contend between responsibility—towards her parents—and freedom—to love who she wants. WWII and segregation pose a further threat to the couple.
In 1986 we follow their daughter, Jackie, as she tries to juggle single motherhood with work and house chores. Her husband, Terry, disappeared from her life after he became addicted to crack. After months without a word from him, he reappears, claiming that he’s clean and is actively trying to keep it that away. Knowing that to let Terry back into her life will not only earn the disapproval of her loved ones but might eventually result in more hurt, Jackie is torn between hope and fear.
We then have chapters set in 2010. T.C., Jackie’s son, has just been released from a four-month stint in prison. His girlfriend is pregnant and in spite of him being less than faithful he now wants to make things right with her. However, he immediately falls back into bad habits when he reconnects with his friend Tiger. Here we see the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, specifically on T.C.’s community.
Regardless of the period Sexton is depicting, the setting and time are rendered in vivid detail. She evokes the atmosphere of the places she writes of as well as the changing vernacular. Sexton also emphasises the way in which racial inequality has morphed over the decades and the way this in turn affects and shapes Evelyn and her descendants. In her portrayals of addiction and poverty Sexton writes with empathy and insight, conveying the despair, fatigue, and anguish of those who like Jackie love someone who is abusing dangerous substances. Much of Jackie’s story hit close to home so I found her chapters to be painful reading material. There are moments of beauty and communion, made even more poignant by how rare they are. Although Sexton reveals the eventual outcome of Evelyn and Jackie’s narratives in T.C.’s chapters, when we returned to them I still found myself engrossed in their stories, hoping against hope that things would not unfold the way I know they will.
Sexton captures three generations of an African-American family who is trying to navigate a less than civil landscape. The characters have to contend with a society that is rife with injustices (racial disparity, classism, colorism, sexism, environmental disasters, drug epidemics, crime) and their attempts balance familial or societal duties with their personal desires. As the title itself suggests, the narratives are very much about freedom. Each character is trying their hardest to be free.
A Kind of Freedom filled me with sorrow. Sexton has written a heartbreaking debut novel, one that gripped me not for its plot but for its beautifully complex character studies.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expected the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender identity. As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight, and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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